Jessica Wilkerson: If We Forget Appalachia's Radical History, We Will Misunderstand Its FutureHistorians in the News
tags: radicalism, Appalachia
Following the 2016 presidential election, the hills and hollers of Appalachia became ground zero for explorers in a world still referred to as "Trump Country." Coastal journalists parachuted in to take photos of poor people and investigate why these strange hill folk insisted on "voting against their own interests." Author and staunch conservative J.D. Vance was fêted as a sort of redneck whisperer, his up-by-your-bootstraps memoir Hillbilly Elegy touted as the key to understanding our new political dilemma. Despite the economic realities of President Donald Trump's true voting base (who were primarily affluent Republicans), the white working class was blamedsquarely for the rise of Trump, and Appalachia was held up as a prime example of the conditions that had made his rise possible.
Scapegoating the region for its imagined character deficiencies made it easy for the pundit class to avoid engaging in meaningful discussions about the ingrained racism and economic inequality that ultimately had a far greater impact on the 2016 election results. Instead, that convenient narrative was condensed, and condensed further, until, ultimately, an entire region with a diverse population and rich political history was reduced to a chyron.
"People have short memories, and I think [the 2016] election has really created a moment where people want simple narratives," Elizabeth Catte, historian and author of What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, told The Creative Independent in an interview last year. The sort of willful ignorance that Catte laments is especially egregious when one considers just how deep the spirit of dissent runs in Appalachia's rocky soil. "There's so much more that [Americans] should know," Catte said. "They should know about the history of exploitation in the region, they should know about the way that capitalism works in the region, they should know the function that Appalachia has had historically in relation to the rest of the country."
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